Some days, I tell Stefano I might drop everything and become a pastry chef. Specifically, an Italian pastry chef. A pasticciere.
In our opinion, there’s nothing more spectacular than Italian pastries and desserts. Delicate, nuanced flavors; simple, natural ingredients; satisfying, but not decadent or overly sweet.
In Rome, pasticcerie (pastry shops or bakeries) are filled with cream filled pastarelle , or their smaller counterpart, the mignon. Around breakfast time, you’ll find the classic Roman maritozzi alla panna, an irresistible, cream-filled brioche.
In addition to cream-filled pastries, there is a lovely assortment of fragrant and delicate choices from the pasticceria secca, or cookies and tea biscuits, like these. Moreover, on recent trips back to Italy, we noted a resurgence of dolci al cucchiaio, a category of desserts that includes custards, puddings, mousses and so forth, which are enjoyed with a spoon, or cucchiaio.
Panna cotta is a quintessential Italian dessert that belongs to this latter category. It’s as simple as its name suggests: panna means cream, and cotta means cooked. Cooked cream, a little sugar, a vanilla bean for flavor, and a bit of gelatin to hold it together. Panna cotta originates from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where rich cream is a staple. It is traditionally served with a caramel, chocolate, or mixed berry sauce. However, many creative variations exist. This version enticed us with an orange sauce and Sicilian Bronte pistachios, as the flavors evoked our recent trip to Sicily.
Learning to make panna cotta properly takes practice. A correctly prepared panna cotta should be neither runny nor too firm. Rather, it should jiggle when you move the plate. Ideally, it should be served turned out from the container it was prepared in. This, too, is an art. I’ve added a few tips in our recipe below.
When we see panna cotta on a restaurant’s dessert menu, Stefnao and I always order it to see if it is prepared correctly. Rarely do we find one better than our own recipe, though.
For the pana cotta
- 500 grams heavy cream
- 10 grams gelatin sheets
- 100 grams sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
- Zest of one orange
For the orange sauce
- Juice of one orange
- 100 grams sugar
- 1 Tbsp water
- 2 Tbsp ground pistachios
Prepare the Panna Cotta
- Submerge the gelatin sheets in a pan of cold water, and let them sit.
- Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, and add it, along with the cream and sugar, to a small pan.
- Zest the orange and add the zest to the cream mixture.
- Gently bring it to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When it boils, remove it from heat.
- Remove the gelatin sheets from the water one by one, wring the excess water off of them, and add each sheet to the cream. Stir until the gelatin dissolves completely into the cream mixture.
- Carefully pour the cooked cream into your molds, and then refrigerate for at least two hours, or longer.
Prepare the Orange Sauce
- Place the sugar into a small saucepan, and then add water. Without stirring, place over low heat.
- While the sugar heats and dissolves into the water, juice your two oranges, ensuring that pulp and seeds are filtered out.
- Once the sugar has completely dissolved, add the orange juice. The addition of the orange juice will cause the sugar to crystallize. Turn the heat to its lowest setting and stir until the sugar again dissolves.
- Remove from heat, and let cool to room temperature.
Assemble, Garnish and Serve
- When the panna cotta is ready, carefully turn it out of its mold onto a small serving plate.
- Drizzle the orange sauce over the top of each panna cotta, and finish with a dusting of pistachio.
- Garnish with a thin orange slice.
Ideally, use Sicilian Bronte pistachios. If you cannot find them, regular pistachios will work just fine.
For us, 10g was two gelatin sheets. This may vary depending on brand, so it's worth weighing them.
A properly prepared panna cotta will jiggle on its plate but hold its shape. A panna cotta with too little gelatin will collapse when spooned into, while too much gelatin will leave your panna cotta stiff and thick.
Turning the panna cotta out of its mold onto a small serving plate can be tricky, as sometimes it doesn’t cooperate. Try running the bottom and sides of the mold quickly under hot water, or applying a hot, damp cloth to the mold to loosen the panna cotta and help it come out. You can also run a butter knife under hot water to help break the seal between the panna cotta and the mold. If you run into difficulty turning out the panna cotta, just serve it in its container.